The Appeal of Ruins

by frankbeswick

Ruined castles and churches exercise a strange enchantment on their visitors' minds.

Living in Britain is to be in a land where history is close, and it is always possible to find not far from you ruins of many different ages. I can get a tram into Manchester and not far from my tram stop are the remains of a Roman fort. Sometimes we find visitors flocking to the ruins of abbeys destroyed at the Reformation and walking meditiatively in their "bare ruined choirs." At other times we find people visiting ruined castles. What attracts us to places that might well be pulled down and their stones re-used? Do they in some way enchant us or make us think?

Picture of the Roman Forum by Frank Beswick

Ancient Stones

I had what I now know to be a panic attack when I was eight years old. We were holidaying in North Wales and were taking a picnic at the ruined Rhuddlan Castle, whose mighty mediaeval stone keep had seen many a year and much turmoil. Mother was pregnant and just wanted to sit, Dad sat beside her on the grass by the empty moat, and Veronica was in her trolley, which left room for me and my brother to race madly round the walls. I knew about castles, knights and men at arms, for I had seen pictures of them in books,and so I ran not just with my body, but with my imagination. Taking a cut through the ancient keep, in which I was the only living person.  I was suddenly struck with terror. I imagined that I was being watched, that hundreds of eyes were staring down at me from the walls, I imagined men at arms gazing down from the ruined ramparts. For a moment I stood transfixed and then fled out to the safety of my parents.

I can still remember clearly the moment of terror fifty nine years ago, and can find a parallel in Seamus Heaney's poem, Death of a Naturalist when at six he realized the terror that lurks in nature. I attribute the panic attack to the fact that I was growing up and becoming aware of the vastness of time and of the eons that have gone before me, peopled by folk that I can never know. Being a small child on his own surrounded by massive, ancient walls caused a surge of fear generated by a sense of vulnerability.

Never since have I had such a panic attack in ruins. Some of them, like the Roman Forum or Pompeii are so busy that you don't have the solitude needed  for imaginative engagement.But when you visit some ruins you have time to pause and reflect. I have on more than one occasion visited the ruined monastery on Llandwn Island off Anglesey, a tidal isle that can be accessed on foot. Standing in the ruined church which is now filled with nettles and looking up through the vanished roof to the sky above I cannot be anything else  but sad for what has been lost, for how much that was good that disappeared at the Reformation. 

The poet in me [we all have some poetry in us] allied with the gardener when I saw the nettles, for I know that they only grow in fertile soil. So maybe,I mused, the monastery is still fertile for us today, preserving some of the spirituality of the place for us to savour in our age  for a brief moment, sparkles from the light of a receding past,a reminder that the modern age has its serious deficiencies.


Stone Circle

Castlerigg Stone Circle
Castlerigg Stone Circle

Spirituality Ancient and Modern

Unlike Stonehenge, which is a ruin, Castlerigg has not fallen down, it has merely been abandoned. I was disappointed when I made my one visit to Stonehenge, for it was when the public could only look from a distance, and I have not been to that part of the country since then. But Castlerigg is quiet and peaceful, set against the backdrop of the Northern Cumbrian hills. Here you have the time and peace to let your imagination explore reality. You can wonder about how the circle integrated with its landscape and speculate, even imaginatively recreate the feelings that its worshippers had. But I wonder if visiting stone circles can be too easy. I once ascended the Carneddau in North Wales above Pen Maen Mawr and visited a small circle, a mere chapel compared to the cathedral that was Stonehenge. Having made an exertion to reach it made the place all  the more significant for me. To see what was once a much-loved place  lingering forgotten in the unfeeling hills brought up a sense of sadness and an awareness that there is so much lost to me that archaeology cannot reach. 

But there are many ruined abbeys in the British Isles,testimony to the religious violence and intolerance that characteried the Reformation. Take a look at Whitby Abbey in the picture below. The abbey was destoyed first by the Vikings and later by the protestant reformers, but it can be accessed by the general public. Even in the seventeenth cenury there were people who mourned the bare ruined choirs of the desecrated  monasteries. This was too dangerous to say in the Tudor period, but the more tolerant Stuarts were happy with such comments. Ordinary people knew what they had lost, despite government threats to free speech in the Tudor period.

To walk in its empty walls and sample what is left of the architecture is to get a flavour of its ancient beauty. Those of us as fortunate as I am to have some experience in Latin liturgical music from my time in Catholic theological college can imagine the ancient chants that were sung within its walls. We are reminded that there is in the music of the Roman Catholic Church a profound beauty that touches the soul and inspires inner peace. This music is an expression of the Catholic spirit that the modern age cannot give us.

Such places can and should be locations for quiet meditation and reflection. Christian meditation is not emptying the mind and has nothing to do with the Hindu syllable om. It is reflection on God and his relationship with the world. When you visit a religious ruin reflect on good and evil and how they interplay in individual lives and society. You should regard ruins as a places of peace where you can renew your spirits in an atmosphere free of economic bustle, antidotes to the modern age and its stress-generating exactions on our mental health. They also show us in the case of ruined abbeys that wanton destruction does not leave good results, that something beautiful and good that was lost can still call to us through the ages and enchant us with its mystery. To some degree they are challenges to twenty first century civilisation and its great deficiencies. 

Ruined Abbey

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Updated: 10/11/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/12/2020

Derdriu, you have hit on significant points, as you usually do, and you have done so quickly, especially as I was a bit slow to reply last night, as I was tired!

I suspect that Snell haunts as he died with sins on his conscience,hence unshriven. This opens up the issue of what we mean by heaven and hell.

You are rightly impressed by the courage of the priest who gave the last rites to William Wallace. But King Edward should have realized that to try to send someone to hell is to qualify for Hell yourself! Personally, I don't wish Hell on anyone, not my worst enemy, or even Hitler, though it is hard to think of anywhere else he could go.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/12/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the reference to Potsford Wood gibbet.
Internet sources gave me a clear idea of what happened before and after the 17th-century event, but not of why. Most sources indicated that the Snell remains were collected for burial within 50 years of his death. It makes me wonder why the place is so haunted by him since he was laid to rest. Would it be because he actually got buried but perhaps never went through confession, late rites and proper funeral in consecrated ground?
In another direction that is somewhat related, somewhat not, it always has impressed me that the priest dared to confess and give last rites to William Wallace even though King Edward I tried for that not to happen.

frankbeswick on 03/12/2020

Derdriu, there is not sufficient evidence to say whether stone facilitates eerie experiences more easily than other substances do.

Yes, we have gallows trees standing in the isles, and some have spectral associations.But at times the spectral experiences outlive the tree or the gallows. Look up Potsford Wood gibbet.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/11/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the photos, practicalities and products.
In particular, I appreciate your including a British Heritage Activity Book; the series is something I've valued as educationally entertaining and entertainingly educational.
Do you think that stone facilitates eerier experiences than wood? Do the isles have still-standing trees that once served as hanging trees and have people talked about feeling, hearing or seeing anybody or anything unsettling from such past associations?

Veronica on 10/12/2017

I saw the body shapes in Pompeii but to me thy aren't bodies just casts ; it's like looking at statues. Plus as a Catholic, I believe the body is just a casket and the spirit lives on more importantly.

frankbeswick on 10/11/2017

Not every visitor to Pompeii gets to see the bodies, I did not, and as I visited the place in the August heat and was part of a bilingual party in which everything had to be said in English and French, the tour took too long and so I suffered in the brutal Italian heat until I could obtain mineral water, so the visit became onerous after a while. As I said, there was no time for quiet reflection.

blackspanielgallery on 10/11/2017

We have no castles here, but many old forts that were constructed of brick and are in disrepair. Some built by Spanish, some by French, and each with a different appearance. Unfortunately, some forts I remember as a child are no longer available, for the danger of being struck by a falling brick is too great.
One place I would find unsettling is Pompeii, for seeing body forms where people died is at another level.
In America there is a fascination with cemeteries, the reason for which I cannot understand. In south Louisiana many have small, white structures built above ground because water is often just below the surface.

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